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Bid to Restore Voting Rights for Non-Citizens Stirs Lively Debate

Today, most Americans take it for granted that the right to vote can come only with full citizenship. But for the first 150 years of this nation's history, many non-citizens were voters in states and territory elections. Recently, some immigrant activists and sympathetic politicians have been campaigning to restore the vote to documented non-citizens, at least in some local elections.

In New York City, for example, City Councilmember Charles Barron has introduced a bill called The Voting Rights Restoration Act. If passed, it would give legal immigrants the right to vote after six months residency in the Big Apple. Barron represents a mostly African American and Latino district whose residents can already vote as citizens. But he is passionate about changing the status quo for immigrants who have no voice at the ballot box.

"It disenfranchises one-point-three million non-citizens who are legal residents here in New York City, who pay eighteen point two billion dollars worth of taxes. Many have volunteered for the war in Iraq. [So] they should have the right to vote in municipal elections."

One frequent participant in forums and discussion dedicated to immigrant voting rights is 27 year old Naila Rosario. She came to the US from Colombia when she was a girl and stayed on assorted visas until recently, when she applied for the citizenship she hopes will be finalized in 2009. Rosario says she loves American democracy, and has participated fully as a community activist, yet she remains frustrated.

"I can't vote! I can support candidates but I can't go out there and make my voice heard," she complains. "That's a big part of that process and in that way I feel very handicapped."

When a reporter points out to Rosario that she has been free to participate in many aspects of the democratic process, such as canvassing, protesting and political meetings, she quickly counters with the question: "If I give you half your rights, should you stop complaining for the other half of your rights? No! You should get all of your rights. I pay all my taxes. So therefore I should get all my rights as well." [Otherwise] she adds, "it's 'taxation without representation.'"

"Taxation without representation is tyranny!" was a rallying cry for the American colonists who wanted independence from Britain in the 18th century. They were protesting the fact that they were taxed by the British Parliament without any of their representatives in that body.

Some 21st century voting rights advocates have adopted that slogan for themselves. But Stanley Renshon, a political science professor at the City University of New York, and the author of The 50% American: Immigration And National Identity in an Age of Terror, rejects that comparison.

"First of all," says Renshon, "the colonies didn't have any representation, and they weren't going to get any." But people who come here today," he notes, "have a comparatively easy way of getting the vote. All they have to do is come here legally, spend five years here, take a really easy test in citizenship and English and not rob a bank or get involved with dope dealing, and bingo! They are citizens!"

In reality, gaining U.S. citizenship is rarely so simple or so sure. Critics cite a huge backlog at the Immigration and Naturalization Service and other agencies responsible for processing citizenship applications. Indeed, immigrants must sometimes wait 10 years or longer to complete the process.

However, there is no required link between citizenship and the right to vote. Between 1776 and 1926, 40 states and territories allowed immigrants to vote in some elections, although that's no longer the case. ""What changed was the size of the immigrant population, the complexion of the immigrants, the religion of the new immigrants and local reaction to those factors," says political science professor Ron Hayduk, who directs the Immigrant Voting Project.

In his book Democracy for All: Restoring Immigrant Voting Rights in the United States, Hayduk puts the present period in historical context. "Right now, we're facing unease with the newcomers, asking ourselves "Are these folks going to be 'real' Americans? Are they going to assimilate? Are they going to affect the economy in a negative way?"

But those are legitimate concerns, according to Stanley Renshon, who believes that the law mandating a five year waiting period for citizenship - and the vote - is good for both immigrants and those already rooted here.

"It is a test, to some degree, of commitment," he says. "It takes a little time to learn English for some people. It takes a little time to know the country. It takes a little time to get the civics background. And so when people make that effort, they are invested in what they are doing."

Voting itself, adds Renshon, "is about the idea of learning about the issues that face this country and learning where you stand as an American, not as an immigrant, but as an American. It takes some time to move out beyond the frame that you came with."

It is unclear whether New York City's Voting Rights Restoration Act and similar measures in Washington, D.C.; San Francisco, California and other locales will become law. One thing is certain though: as immigrants continue to pour into the United States in record numbers, the question of what it actually means to be an American - in both spirit and in law - will continue to energize public debate.